Ezekiel sat completely still and savored the feeling of the shade of a wide oak tree against his skin and his back pressed against the pitted bark of the trunk. Those sensations helped separate him from what he was here for. Below him on a low hill was a rather quaint looking log cabin with smoke wafting upward from the chimney in puffy gasps.
Aside from the wind running its fingers through the foliage on the tree-lined hills, there was no other movement in front of Ezekiel as he fixed the cabin with his intense gaze. Almost reflexively, Ezekiel activated his Eyes of Avarice that would let him see what were the likeliest Skills he would earn by killing someone. Unfortunately, they could not pierce through physical objects. So Ezekiel could only wait.
The familiar hunger of his Class gnawed at Ezekiel’s stomach, but he had endured the constant need to feed for so long that this relatively shallow iteration of the hunger that defined his current life that he didn’t even respond. His eyes remained trained on the house below, waiting for some proof that he was right.
“Are you sure this is the right place?”
Ezekiel glanced sideways at the man named Ace who was reclining with a lazy arrogance against a pile of leaves. It was doubly aggravating because Ace didn’t care at all about the answer to the question; Ezekiel’s tanned and muscled companion only asked because he knew how much it bothered Ezekiel.
“Yes,” Ezekiel said shortly. The few short seconds of looking at Ace with his Eyes of Avarice had returned the answer Brutality Mastery Level 170, Steel Grip Level 101, and Savor Pain Level 122. Ezekiel quickly turned away from Ace. It was always something of a shock to look at Ace and constantly different Skills. It just spoke to the depth of power that Ezekiel’s companion possessed. Better by far for Ezekiel’s nerve to focus on the task at hand.
Based on their calculations, their only chance to catch this very valuable quarry was here. They had already waited for several hours and soon it wouldn’t be worth it to remain. But Ace was determined to strike here. These days, Ezekiel rarely went more than several hours without eating, and he wouldn’t have even considered this mission if he hadn’t been tempted by the payment that Ace had offered for his very peculiar assistance.
And even if Ace was blatantly ignoring all of Ezekiel’s attempts to remain stealthy, there was a reason that Ezekiel didn’t bother to reprimand Ace. A very straightforward and primal one.
Ezekiel had already discovered to his horror that Ace was stronger than him.
It had been months since Ezekiel had last missed a meal and had his Stats decreased from the side effect of his Class. Combining his maintained Stats with the high-Level Skills that Ezekiel had been able to gain with his daily kills, he had grown into something of a monstrous all-rounder. He didn’t often start fights that he wasn’t confident of winning, but there weren’t many individuals that Ezekiel encountered these days that triggered his Danger Sense. Quite like his son Randidly, Ezekiel Ghosthound had walked the Path of having so many Skills that he wasn’t too concerned about what his opponent did.
Although admittedly their similar styles were due to very different reasons.
Even as Ace was about to open his mouth and let out another lazy needling comment, the door to the cottage opened and both men’s gazes both sharpened. A tall woman with short red hair walked out of the cabin and twisted her torso lazily as if to crack her back.
Ace chuckled darkly. Ezekiel looked at her with sad eyes. She is so young. “Is she the one that-”
“Don’t think about it,” Ace rumbled lightly. “Better to play it safe. Just think about her. The greatest healer of Zone 19, one of the three people of the original twenty that survived the journey into the Raid Dungeon.”
Clenching his hands, Ezekiel tried to speak again. “If we wait-”
“We need the assistance of those Skills of hers,” Ace’s eyes flicked sideways to Ezekiel. There was almost something like amusement there. “Are you thinking of backing out?”
“And what comes after… you will handle it?” Ezekiel whispered as he closed his eyes. Too much had happened since the System arrived. He had made too many decisions that he couldn’t escape from. Although he tried his best to keep his hands clean, it was impossible. The world constantly pushed him toward darkness. He needed to kill to survive.
How long had it been since Ezekiel had really considered starving himself so other people didn’t need to die…?
“Obviously,” Ace pounded his chest with a hand. “There aren’t many people on Earth who can last long in a fight against me. If things go South, I’ll take care of it. Have some faith, will you?”
Ezekiel slowly nodded his head. And no sooner had he agreed than the woman began walking down the low slope of the hill toward the treeline below. Both men slowly got to their feet and began to make their way down their own slope to meet her among the trees. Based on the research they had done over the past two days, there was a thin stream hidden amongst the trees that was the woman’s most likely destination.
And if this healer was to be murdered, the stream was the best place for the killer to strike.
These days, the highest combat Skill that Ezekiel had taken was Axe Mastery, so he flexed his hand and instinctually produced a steel ax from his interspatial watch. Ezekiel couldn’t help but spare Ace a glance, and inwardly sighed as he watched the only preparatory action that the young man took was to remove his motorcycle helmet and hold it under his arm as they wove amongst the trees.
To Ezekiel’s relief, Ace at least was utilizing a high-Level Sneak Skill in order to move through the brush toward the stream. Which, combined with their high Agility Stats, meant that both had arrived at the edge of the stream with time to watch the woman’s form winding its way down the game trail toward them.
She wore jeans and a dark green linen shirt, providing a stark contrast for her cherry-red hair. Her eye-catching head was like a fishing floater bobbing through the green underbrush, sinking down toward the stream.
“Ready?” Ace said, but there was none of his usual amusement in his tone. It seemed that most of the teasing, indulgent Ace had faded away, leaving only the frosty monster that lurked within his core. His eyes were flinty and grey as he considered the woman approaching the stream.
Ezekiel straightened and tightened his grip on his ax as he looked at Ace again, almost reflexively activating Eyes of Avarice. This time, Ezekiel saw Overriding Will Level 199, Audacious Charge Level 76, and Savor Pain Level 122. Idly, Ezekiel wondered whether his eyes told him what he would currently get, or just gave a few possible options.
And then there was a soft splash and both Ezekiel and Ace were surging to motion.
Roaring, Ace ripped forward as the stream between them and the woman turned an increasingly dark shade of red. By the time that Ace reached the stream and leapt across the waterway, the liquid in the surrounding area was the crimson shade of blood. As Ace was blurring across the meandering waterway, the liquid began to bubble and seeth.
The woman, for her part, reacted surprisingly well. Her eyes quickly widened as she noticed Ace’s rushing form, but Ezekiel also saw her take in the sudden shift of the stream. She kicked backward, creating about five meters of further distance that would give her time to react to these strange new developments. Although they had received word that she was a healer, she obviously possessed a decent amount of physical Stats to respond so decisively.
Likely she had been required to fight on the frontlines in the past.
Ezekiel’s eyes flashed. Honestly, your experience is more of a hindrance than a help when we are trying to save your life. Blink.
In a flash, Ezekiel appeared behind the woman and activated Stunning Grasp. Electricity crackled around his claw-like hand as he sharply smashed his palm into her back. Immediately, the woman gasped and staggered forward. Narrowing his eyes, Ezekiel raised his palm to prepare for another strike; her Endurance and Resistance was enough to stay conscious after the first one.
But before he could move, the foe lurking in the stream made its move. As Ace landed on the far bank, the same side on which both the woman and Ezekiel now stood, a crimson blur cut out of the water and toward Ace’s back.
Without a care in the world, Ace raised his arms and slipped his helmet over his head. Then, just as it seemed like he was going to be punctured by the blur, Ace’s body contorted and he twisted out of the way. Then his hands shot out and grabbed the blur.
“Sudden Recovery, Status Inoculation,” The woman in front of Ezekiel muttered. Ezekiel’s eyes jumped back to her and his mouth twisted in annoyance. If she would have just gone down easily we could have begun their escape plan immediately-
“My, my, my,” Ace drawled as he heaved on the limb he had seized and dragged a huge monster out of the stream. It was a huge crimson scorpion, about the size of a motorcycle. Floating above its head was the name Bloodbeast Scorpion Level 50.
But again, Ezekiel’s wavering focus allowed the woman to spin away and dodge his second Stunning Grasp. And when Ezekiel stepped forward and followed up with a third, the woman’s arms twined forward in a judo-esque move to avoid his attack and throw him. This time, however, Ezekiel was ready. Maybe against someone else this would work, but against me…
Ezekiel’s body rapidly increased in size, to the point that he was about 1.5 times larger than he had been originally. As the woman’s hands sought out leverage against him, Ezekiel simply smashed into her and sent her stumbling backward. The Skill would only last for a few seconds, but in that few seconds, Ezekiel was rather unmatched in physical contests. The opponent would need to be quite a bit stronger-
Eh? Ezekiel blinked as the woman leaned back as he smashed into her, rolling onto her back and kicking him up over her body. For a few seconds, he was sailing in the air, looking back at the woman in shock. This his mouth twisted in determination. Blink.
As the woman rolled back to her feet, Ezekiel was standing there waiting, his body shrinking back to his normal size. “Noxious Fumes.”
Stretching his hand forward, he blasted the woman directly in the face with something akin to mustard gas. Most would be reduced to a coughing, sneezing fit from the direct hit with the Skill, but this woman gritted her teeth and used her momentum to continue into another backward roll to open up space between them.
Damnit, if that Status Inoculation Skill is this powerful… I knew I should have spent more time Leveling up my Skills, Ezekiel thought bitterly. But he had never found it easy to force himself to train, not like everyone else. Because the Skills he obtained came at high-Levels anyway, finding the motivation to grind them was a bit…
But with the bit of space, Ezekiel’s eyes blazed as he activated Eyes of Avarice. For a split second he could feel the Skill sinking into the woman, and then there was a strange sense of wrongness. A notification popped up in front of Ezekiel.
Warning! Your Skill has failed!
“Oy, not that I want to stop your fight,” Ace’s voice cut across and dragged Ezekiel’s eyes back to the stream. “But I think I we were a bit wrong about the reason that this fuck is taking all of the blood from his victims…”
Ezekiel’s eyes widened as he looked over toward the stream. The water had turned maroon by now, and crimson forms dragged them out of the water one after another. Three especially large bodies already surrounded Ace.
Bloodbeast Grizzly Bear Level 53
Bloodbeast Vulture Level 57
Bloodbeast Cannibal Iguana Level 55
But as Ace quickly dodged out of the way of a slash by the Vulture’s talons, more room was made for additional Bloodbeasts to crawl up onto the shore. At this point, there were almost thirty of them, lumbering out through the surrounding trees to try and box the people into the area.
As Ezekiel was torn with indecision, the woman eyed him and then the Bloodbeasts warily.
Finally, Ezekiel shook his head. “We need to fall back. At least then-”
“Retreat? Ha.” When Ace’s barked out his laughter, it was like his voice drummed against the air in a way that sent reverberations throughout the area. “No. We won’t retreat. It’s time to drag this fuck out for his reckoning. This is proof that he values this woman just as much as we do. And he is a fool for taking me so lightly that he doesn’t come out himself to fight.”
As the Bloodbeasts’ focus narrowed to Ace, Ace raised his arms and transformed.
“Come you fodder, let me show you why they call me Dauntless,” The masked man said with such violence that the air shivered in response.